Universe University

A journey through astronomy and space history to the outer boundaries of the universe.

Interstellar Culture

It is within the power of the human race to propagate ourselves throughout this vast cosmos of which we are a part. There is nothing impossible about such a notion and there are many worlds where we might find ourselves very much at home. According to data from the Kepler space telescope, 20 percent of all stars in our galaxy may contain habitable exoplanets very similar to the Earth. Whether those distant planets contain indigenous life of their own and whether they will be ideal for human habitation is likely a question we will have to answer by visiting those worlds ourselves. One of these potentially habitable planets is a place called ‘Proxima Centauri b’, orbiting the closest star to our own sun: Proxima Centauri. Unfortunately, this planet is still trillions of miles away from the Earth. Much closer, within our own planetary neighborhood, lies a world called Mars. There is enough frozen water on this planet to fill up an entire ocean on Earth and while it has a thinner atmosphere than our own planet, it is enough to offer some protection from solar flares from the sun. There is an old Chinese proverb that states, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and Mars is the first step on our journey towards interstellar civilization.

If we wish to understand what an interstellar culture of human explorers and pioneers will look like, we need only look at the great deeds our species has accomplished in the recent past. For those who say that interplanetary and interstellar colonization are mere science fiction, the fact is that we have already taken the first preliminary steps. In 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt lived and worked on the surface of the Earth’s moon for over three days. During this time, they spent a cumulative total of over 22 hours outside their spacecraft exploring the surface of another world, aided by their lunar rover. It is a record for lunar exploration that still stands to this very day. In astronaut Cernan’s autobiography, ‘Last Man on the Moon’, he describes his final day of lunar exploration in the following words: “Like ordinary commuters, we ate breakfast, dressed and drove to work, although our clothes and car were quite different than those of the average person. Bone tired, we took off for another seven hours.” Someday in the not-too-distant future, a new generation of humans may be commuters on other worlds once again!

Yet how did such a fantastic reality become almost mundane for the men who experienced it nearly half a century ago? It was the culmination of just over a decade of aggressive effort on the part of two global superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. First, the Soviet Union proved they could place simple machines into Earth orbit, humiliating the United States politically with their launch of Sputnik; the first artificial satellite. Then as an encore, they proved that human beings could be placed into Earth orbit with the launch of Yuri Gagarin; the first human being to venture into space. Desperate to catch up to the Soviet Union in what was an apparent race in space technology, American President John F. Kennedy proposed sending a man to land on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. The United States spent substantial time, money, and effort on developing space technology and space infrastructure in low Earth orbit, and then used those tools to press on to land on the moon.

So why did our progress in human space exploration cease in recent decades? The simple answer is that we decided to stop. The Soviet Union lost the political willpower to follow the United States to the moon when the United States got there first. The United States congress also grew weary of the financial costs of space exploration. Then, President Richard Nixon drastically reduced NASA’s budget and opted to develop the American space shuttle; a craft incapable of taking astronauts beyond Earth orbit.

I recently had the opportunity to interview aerospace engineer and founder of the Mars Society, Dr. Robert Zubrin. It was a truly inspiring experience to speak with a man whom I believe to be the strongest advocate for space exploration of all time. It is no exaggeration to say that Dr. Zubrin inspired a young Elon Musk to set his sites on going to Mars! At the conclusion of our interview, Dr. Zubrin told me, “There is an infinite sky and its wide open.” This is as inspiring a message as can be imagined during our current global pandemic.

In his new book, ‘The Case for Space’, Dr. Zubrin predicts that brilliant minds such as Elon Musk are on the precipice of making space travel as routine and inexpensive as air travel within the coming years. To support this conclusion, his book cites the first launch of the (mostly reusable) SpaceX Falcon Heavy booster, which has a payload capacity roughly three times that of the American space shuttle. It is technically capable of sending human beings to the moon or even Mars and it was developed for less than one tenth the cost that most aerospace engineers had predicted. In the book, Dr. Zubrin states, “The age of stagnation will end … But what will it mean for you personally? Well, for starters, it means you will be able to fly to orbit for about 20,000 dollars. This is the same range as current long-distance first-class airplane flights-

This reality is a matter of science fact to Dr. Zubrin but I must concede that his prophecy bears a strong resemblance to science fiction. Mr. Musk himself found inspiration not only from Dr. Zubrin but also from the ‘Foundation’ novels by science fiction author Isaac Asimov. In reflecting on these novels, Mr. Musk said, “The lesson I drew is you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization.” Mars colonization, in Mr. Musk’s eyes, will be the key to making humanity a multi-planetary civilization. When I asked Dr. Zubrin about Mr. Musk drawing his inspiration from science fiction, Dr. Zubrin was quick to point out the motto of the oldest space advocacy body in the world, the British Interplanetary Society. Their motto, enshrined on their coat of arms, reads: “from imagination to reality”. Imagination may very well become a new reality for humanity in short order.

Mr. Musk wants to place a million people in a city on Mars by the year 2050. To call such a goal ambitious is an understatement. It may take many decades, perhaps even centuries to make such colonization a reality. Settling in North and South America was a task that took Europeans centuries. But landing on Mars is an undeniably noble goal and the first step towards creating an interstellar civilization, regardless of how long it may take. So it is rather unfortunate to think that there are so many naysayers and critics of human missions to Mars, even within NASA and the European Space Agency!

These naysayers warn that a single human mission to Mars followed by a return to Earth shortly thereafter is simply far too dangerous of a risk to human life due to radiation in space. Dr. Zubrin dismisses such concerns as baseless and alarmist. He is well qualified to do so. With a PhD in Nuclear Engineering, Dr. Zubrin once worked for the Office of Radiation Protection in Washington State. When I asked him to explain the risks, Dr. Zubrin said the following: “Based on the best models that we have and these are very conservative models, it is about a one percent [increased] risk of getting a fatal cancer some time later in your life … It is a much lower risk than tens of millions of people voluntarily assume by smoking because the average American smoker adds a 20 percent risk of fatal cancer to themselves just for whatever pleasure they get out of smoking, as opposed to the joy you would get from being the first human on Mars!” Should such a modest risk really stand in the way of human beings exploring and settling on literal new worlds throughout the universe? To be sure, there will be many other risks and hardships but human beings are resilient creatures.

Humans only set up permanent outposts in Antarctica, Earth’s southernmost continent, within the last half a century despite the fact that human beings had discovered the continent in the 1800s. The dry, frigid tundra of Antarctica with its high elevation and thin air bear a striking resemblance to the surface of Mars. The human settlements on this terrestrial continent are proof that our species can and will inevitably explore and settle in the most extreme environments that our imaginations can conceive. In the early 1900s, at the Earth’s South Pole, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his men dragged their supplies across an icy landscape while suffering from scurvy and altitude sickness. Today, the same location is dubbed Amundsen-Scott Station in honor of the first teams of men to reach this remote location. The station has hot showers, a dry sauna, a bar, and a library. A few hundred miles from Amundsen-Scott is Vostok Station where just a few decades ago, its inhabitants saw the coldest temperatures ever recorded on the planet Earth. During the austral winter of 1983, while human beings were alive and well at the base, temperatures plunged to negative 89 degrees Celsius or negative 128 Fahrenheit!

Struggling to imagine what life on a future Mars colony might be like, I found myself reaching out to a woman named Agustina Lusky. Simply visiting a harsh and remote frontier on the Earth as an adult can be an incomparable experience. But Agustina Lusky actually spent a portion of her childhood on such a frontier: a permanent, Argentine outpost known as Esperanza Base on the continent of Antarctica. Her personal account, quoted below, represents the triumph of the human spirit and our resilience to make ourselves at home in distant lands…

"In 1998, my father was given the opportunity to travel with his family to Base Esperanza. He was in charge of the Seismological Station at the base that measured earthquakes. My mom went along as my dad’s assistant to help him with his work. The majority of people there were military. Everyone seemed fairly normal; decent, kind people. I was 10 years old, just one of 12 kids. Only three of them were around my age. We all became friends immediately and that friendship has continued to this day.

There was a small school there. It was the same as going to school anywhere, except of course there were very few students. In my classroom, six of us were divided into three groups because we were different ages. Usually, we walked to school unless there was a bad snowstorm outside. On those days, a special vehicle came to pick us up. If there was a storm, it usually meant that the snow would be way above our heads. If the weather was really bad, class would be cancelled for the day.

My favorite place on the base was called ‘The Casino’ but it wasn’t a REAL casino. Just a place where the 65 people on the base gathered to eat pizza on Saturdays, watch movies, and play games like pool or ping-pong. Birthdays and holidays were also celebrated at the Casino. My friends and I used to play pool there all the time and we got pretty good at it.

When we weren’t playing pool; we went hiking, played in the snow, walked on the frozen sea, watched movies on VHS tapes, and had sleepovers. Sometimes at night, we gathered at the lighthouse to eat snacks and tell scary stories. We were the happiest kids on earth and I think I speak for most us when I say it was the most precious time of our lives. I loved to watch the Adelie and Papua Penguins with their babies. I used to go with my dad to do field work, riding on the back of his snowmobile. The view from the Buenos Aires glacier was breathtaking. We used to snowboard down.

The day we had to leave the base was one of the saddest days of my life. My friends and I cried a lot. Going back to everyday life was very hard. I remember talking on the phone for hours with one of my friends crying and remembering our time there.

It has been 22 years and I still miss Antarctica with all my heart. Sometimes, I can’t help but cry when I look at the old photos from my childhood… If I had the chance, I would go back without even thinking. If there is one person I know who could live on Mars and be happy doing it, it’s my father but this would only be possible if he were there with his family. He used to say that during our stay at Base Esperanza, he had to pinch himself every day because he couldn't believe that his family was by his side.

I personally have always been obsessed with space travel and life on other planets, so I would be happy to go on such a journey. I think that people who would have the chance to go to Mars or some other planet should not be sentimentally bound to the Earth… it would be hard to bear without deteriorating their psyche.”

It has been said that home is where the heart is and the human heart is capable of forging grandiose dreams into a glorious reality. Perhaps no one believes this more strongly than Dr. Zubrin. While he has devoted his career to advocating for a human mission to Mars, he told me Mars is just a direction. It is not a final destination. His book, ‘The Case for Space’ is not science fantasy or science fiction; it’s a literal road map to the stars written by a brilliant engineer and polymath who realizes that those same stars are within humanty’s grasp. The words below are Dr. Zubrin’s prophecy.

500 years from now, there will be cities not only on Mars and elsewhere in the solar system but on hundreds of planets orbiting stars in this region of the galaxy; hundreds of new branches of human civilization, new languages, new literatures, new cultural traditions and political traditions, multitudes of sources for discoveries, inventions, technology… and tales of heroic deeds that will be used to inspire other people to go even further in developing this magnificent interstellar culture. When they look back on this time, they will view it as the beginning of history, just like we could look back on humans leaving Africa as the beginning of human history … So this is something truly magnificent and we’re present at the creation. It’s our honor to be among the creators.”

Dr. Zubrin's prophecy can be realized but we need to take the first step. We need to send human beings to Mars. I can only hope that our current generation can rise to the challenge.

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